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Paula Deen, emotional on 'Today' show, denies using racist words

Celebrity chef Paula Deen in Manhattan. (Jan. 17,

Celebrity chef Paula Deen in Manhattan. (Jan. 17, 2012) Photo Credit: AP

Teary, passionate, remorseful, defiant, former Food Network star Paula Deen gave the performance of her life Wednesday morning during a "Today" interview that had originally been scheduled Friday but was abruptly canceled when she claimed exhaustion.

She denied making racial epithets -- the ones that lead to her ouster from the Food Network -- but conceded that she had used them once years ago, in reference to someone who had robbed her and whom she had known.

Then, turning to the camera just as Matt Lauer was about to wrap it up, Deen offered the sound bite that will be the pullout quote for pretty much the rest of the day, on TV and online: "If there's anyone out there that has never said something that they wish they could take back -- if you're out there someplace, pick up that stone and throw it so hard to my head that it kills me. Please, I want to meet you."

Adding this: "I is what I is, and I'm not changing..."

Lauer kept Deen's damage control interview – there's another one in People magazine, too -- focused on motive as opposed to opportunity: Deen's motive in finally agreeing to do an interview that should have happened Friday, in the heat of the storm that was about to engulf her, instead of using this as an opportunity to rehab her image and empire. In a deposition in a lawsuit filed by a former employer at one of her restaurants, Deen was accused of using racial epithets, which led to a hostile workplace.

Food Network later dropped her, QVC is weighing whether to, while other endorsements crumbled as well. Lauer wondered aloud whether these companies had treated her fairly and whether she would have fired herself under similar conditions: "Would I have fired me?" she said momentarily flustered by the wording of Lauer's question, then said:

"Knowing me, no. I'm very lucky in this aspect -- so fortunate that so many of my partners have decided to stand by me..." Was she a racist, Lauer wanted to know. "As a child I was raised in a home that father tolerated bad grades, he would tolerate me breaking a curfew, but he told me, 'Girl, if I ever find out that you have behaved in a way where you think you're better than others, or have been unkind, then your butt is mine."

Meanwhile, the only time she used "that word" was 30 years ago, "with a gun to my head" -- a reference to the robbery -- then added, "It's very disturbing to go into my kitchens and it's distressing to hear what they, young people, are calling each other. It's very distressing for me because for this problem to be worked on, these young people are going to have to take control and start showing respect for each other and not throwing that word at each other. It makes my skin crawl."

How did Deen do -- because at the end of the day, or in this case, at the end of the morning, such interviews are indeed performances designed to erase negative impressions and repair financial damage? "Today" later said viewers' tweets were "evenly divided," with most saying Deen's interview did not change their minds about her.

But she certainly scored high with her fans -- some undoubtedly angered by her firing. Still, it's also a fair bet most viewers don't even know what the fuss is all about, or even -- yes even -- who this Paula Deen is. For many of them, this is the first time they saw her -- not a hard-driving business woman who used deeply offensive words but a grandmother and mother, who had accepted that she had once said something terrible and has paid the price. (And then cried some more.) She scored with those viewers, too. But skeptics weren't likely sold, and now the ball's in QVC's court, and maybe even the Food Network's.

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